A revolutionary impatience

Issue: 144

Alex Callinicos

Daniel Bensaïd, An Impatient Life: A Political Memoir (Verso, 2013), £24.99

Daniel Bensaïd was, as Tariq Ali says in his foreword to this autobiography, “France’s leading Marxist public intellectual” until he died at the age of 63 in 2010. For many years he had lived with the prospect of an early death, and so he wrote a bewilderingly rapid succession of books. All are distinguished by Daniel’s revolutionary commitment, his intellectual originality and his superb prose style—drenched in the French literary tradition, his writing is distinctive among Marxists for its use of metaphor, its vividness, and its very broad range of reference.

This autobiography, published in France in 2004, is one of many products of this textual flood that deserve to last. In it Daniel recalls his early years in a working class quarter of Toulouse, his role as a leader of the Jeunesse Communiste Révolutionnaire in the great explosion of May-June 1968, and his political work in subsequent decades for the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire (which launched the Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste in 2009) and the Fourth International (FI). Snapshots from his personal life also figure, but this is, as its subtitle states, a political memoir.

Daniel had a fascinating life at the centre of French radical left politics so there are many pleasures in this book. It’s hard to select from so rich a treasure trove, but here are a couple. The first is the pen portrait (among many others) of his redoubtable mother, who refused to speak to her son-in-law for ten years because he expressed doubts about the wisdom of guillotining Louis XVI (Daniel himself was punctilious about remembering the great dates of the French Revolution). When facing a difficult encounter she would comfort herself with the observation: “In any case, they won’t make a hole in my arse, I’ve got one already!”

By contrast, Daniel’s account of his many visits to Latin America on behalf of the FI is threaded with bitter tragedy. There are comic moments: at a hostile meeting in 1973 with one Argentinian section, led by Nahuel Moreno, “a long table was laid out, piled high with the complete works of Trotsky. Following each of my interventions, half a dozen specialists would plunge feverishly into the magic books to hunt out a killing quote or a useful crib for the next intervention.” But the stakes in this debate were high. The other main wing of the FI in Argentina, led by Mario Roberto Santucho, was organising an armed struggle against the state.

Daniel is sympathetic to the revolutionary impatience that motivated Santucho (at a meeting with him in FI leader Ernest Mandel’s house in Brussels he had the feeling, amid the doilies and Marxist classics, of being in “a museum of the European workers’ movement”). But he documents the disastrous hecatomb of revolutionary militants (Santucho among them) to which the strategy of guerrilla warfare contributed as the “dirty war” in Argentina escalated towards its climax after the 1976 military coup. Moreno and his followers were right in their critique of the efforts of Latin American revolutionaries to emulate Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. This may help explain why the different fragments of Moreno’s tendency dominate the far left in Latin America—even in Brazil, where, as Daniel describes in recalling much happier visits in the 1980s, FI activists played an important role in founding and building the Workers Party.

Alongside political memories such as these, Daniel offers a distillation of his theoretical views, which are developed much more fully in other works such as Marx for Our Times. He is a master of the lucid formula that sums up a complex theoretical argument. Here’s just one of my favourites: “If it is possible to speak of ‘Marxism’ in the singular, this should rather be viewed as an archipelago of controversies, conjectures, refutations and experiences, whose history it relates by elucidating the mysteries and prodigies of capital.” There is so much that is excellent here that the odd lapse—for example, Daniel’s lazy inclusion of Tony Cliff in a list of “authoritarian gurus”—is easy to forget.

David Fernbach has produced a fine translation of this autobiography, which in the English edition is accompanied by an occasionally overwhelming wealth of footnotes explaining who the long list of characters are. My only slight quibble is with the title. In the French original it is Une lente impatience, literally “a slow impatience”. This doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue, but “An Impatient Life” doesn’t capture it at all. In the book Daniel conveys his meaning when he writes of “an active waiting, an urgent patience, an endurance and a perseverance that are the opposite of passive waiting for a miracle”. This was the stance he believed was necessary for revolutionaries in difficult times. When I first read the book I thought Daniel was exaggerating the difficulties. Now I think what he recommends is exactly what we need.